Captain Jean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) reads a book

9 Books That Will Make 20-Somethings Feel Seen

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If you find yourself struggling to read as much as you used to, you’re not alone. We’re all fairly inundated with distractions—whether it’s the news or work or just needing a little sleep. And anyone who tries to make you feel bad about this needs to chill because as twentysomethings, we have enough to feel bad about.

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Everyone I know—including myself—has all kinds of anxieties about the state of the world, let alone the state of our futures, so, I get it. It can be hard to turn that all off to get into a book for a few hours. But I urge you to try—because sometimes, a good book might just be the reassurance we need that life will be okay. Or that our fears and pains are normal. Or that there’s just beauty and hope that still exists around us. These books, I’ve found, give equal doses of inspiration and comfort—even if the subject matter can veer into darker territories. These aren’t the only books you should read when you’re in your twenties, but they uniquely tap into the emotions and experiences we go through. At the very least, I hope they inspire a trip to your local independent bookstore.

“A Room Called Earth” – Madeleine Ryan

Going to a party is always a loaded occasion, but it’s even more so for neurodivergent people. While I’m not on the spectrum myself, I found that Madeleine Ryan’s “A Room Called Earth” was a call home for all anxious, overthinking partygoers.

The book takes place over one single night, as the protagonist mulls over her life while also observing the idiosyncrasies of the people at a party. It’s an earnest, lovely, and kind examination of one’s foibles and strengths, and it easily became one of my favorite books of the last few years.

“Luster” – Raven Leilani

Sexuality in the modern age is a weird, ever-evolving topic, and it becomes even stranger to navigate when you’re a minority. In a time when it’s easier than ever to commodify and pornify intimacy, Raven Leilani has created a novel that will make you uncomfortable with how accurate it is.

“Luster” follows a young Black woman’s experience getting involved in an open marriage, where the husband is rough with her and the wife becomes a strange role model. The arrangement is only made more complicated when she strikes up a bond with their adopted daughter, the only Black girl in her whole neighborhood. It’s a sobering read, and many times you’ll wish you could be there to support her, only to realize that she reminds you of someone in your own life.

“My Year of Rest and Relaxation” – Ottessa Moshfegh

Who else has sleep issues and is perpetually tormented by the post-capitalistic hellscape we were born into? Haha…yeah. I don’t think this book was meant to be a comforting read, and yet somehow, the protagonist’s blithe rejection of modern life was something of a terrifying triumph to follow.

The protagonist is a beautiful, well-educated socialite, but she’s completely alone, following the death of her parents. This pairs poorly with the incompetence of her new psychiatrist, who freely prescribes her whatever she asks for. What results is her attempt to sleep for an entire year, aided by medication. It’s a dark and intense read, one that I wouldn’t recommend for those who struggle with substance abuse issues, but I will say, it was critically acclaimed for a reason.

“The New Me” – Halle Butler

This book is tonally very similar to “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” but is a touch more grounded in nature. The protagonist, Millie, is similarly dissatisfied with her life and the world around her, having entered her thirties still seeking work through temp agencies. But unlike Ottessa’s protagonist, Millie soldiers on through it, even if she doesn’t believe in what she’s working towards.

While Millie isn’t in her twenties anymore, I found that her feelings of malaise struck true in me and my friends, as we struggle to find purpose in what we do (during an era that feels so removed from reality). At times, you want to shake Millie, tell her to get a hold of herself—but at the end of the day, she’s really just like us.

“Memorial” – Bryan Washington

Interracial dating is…hard, to say the least. And it’s especially difficult to maintain long-term relationships in today’s modern hookup culture. Such a topic has merited a thorough and intimate examination for a long time, and Bryan Washington handled it with immense grace and talent.

“Memorial” is a book about mourning and yearning. Benson still wants to make things work with Mike, but they’re at a point where they’re wondering if it’s still worth it. Then, Mike’s father in Osaka calls to tell him he’s dying, and with little warning, he leaves to be with him. At the same time, his mother arrives in Texas, and now Benson is strapped with taking care of her—as well as her foul temper. It’s a gorgeous book, one of my absolute favorite quarantine reads, and I’m incredibly excited for its a24 TV show in the works.

“The Idiot” – Elif Batuman

Full disclosure, I’m not done with this book yet—it’s been on my list forever and, like many, I’m just not as “good” of a reader as I used to be—but it’s proved to be worth all of the critical acclaims it’s received, and then some. Never have I felt so sympathetic towards a complete and utter “idiot.”

But Selin isn’t really an idiot. She attends Harvard after all, for what that’s worth. It’s more that she’s…romantically challenged. And while I wouldn’t say I was ever as dense as she was, I could still relate to her constant overthinking and over-analyzing of the ins and outs of intimacy, the “etiquette” of it all…it’s both frustrating and incredibly, incredibly real.

“Transcendent Kingdom” – Yaa Gyasi

The traditional American narrative of one’s twenties is gallivanting in reckless excess, but for most immigrant families, the story is fairly different. “Transcendent Kingdom” is such a story, following its incredibly likable protagonist Gifty, whose Ghanaian family goes through intense hardships that continue to affect her well into her twenties.

It’s not a story I could relate to much at all, yet I was glued to each and every page. Yaa Gyasi is one of the most talented authors of our time, and her ability to weave prose into her storytelling is seamless and captivating. Just as captivating was Gifty’s internal monologue, whether she’s examining the mice in her grad lab, or going to church and wondering why.

“The Goldfinch” – Donna Tartt

I’m a little peeved that Donna Tartt’s canon got lumped into the “dark academia” trend because in my opinion, it made her books seem like their only value was in their trendiness. Not trying to gatekeep, just trying to say, there’s a lot more to her writing than a simple aesthetic trend.

“The Goldfinch,” in particular, made me weep at 3 in the morning. Although it follows Theo’s journey from childhood to adulthood, the intense way it dissects and experiences grief is unbelievably cathartic, even though Theo’s circumstances were extraordinary. I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone, if only to enjoy Tartt’s immense gift for storytelling.

“Just Kids” – Patti Smith

It’s autobiographical, sure, but sometimes it feels good to read about someone whose life could very well be yours. I first read “Just Kids” as an eighteen-year-old, about to ship off to college, and I really believe it was one of those transformative books that made me who I am today. Years later, it still has a tangible effect on me.

Patti Smith writes in a way that’s idealistic, almost to a fault, which is probably why it made such an impression on me as a kid. But I think there’s a beauty in that which our generation could stand to learn from. We’re so jaded and distanced from our passions, and at times, it can be difficult to remember the value in authentic artistry. “Just Kids,” in that regard, is a reminder that love, in all forms, is beautiful, and loving our art, and our people, as genuinely and earnestly as possible is what makes us who we are.

(Featured Image: Paramount)

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Madeline Carpou
Madeline (she/her) is a staff writer with a focus on AANHPI and mixed-race representation. She enjoys covering a wide variety of topics, but her primary beats are music and gaming. Her journey into digital media began in college, primarily regarding audio: in 2018, she started producing her own music, which helped her secure a radio show and co-produce a local history podcast through 2019 and 2020. After graduating from UC Santa Cruz summa cum laude, her focus shifted to digital writing, where she's happy to say her History degree has certainly come in handy! When she's not working, she enjoys taking long walks, playing the guitar, and writing her own little stories (which may or may not ever see the light of day).